Why women leaders are MIA from academic life
I never doubted I'd "do-it-all." But the work-family conundrum took on new meaning for me several years ago when, in the middle of teaching a psychology course, I received a message that my oldest had been in an accident at school.
Not to worry, I was told: he was fine and in good hands. Steeling myself against maternal instincts, I continued teaching. Ironically, the day's topic was work and family. Then came the second message: "Your son looks worse than originally reported." Careful not to reveal the frazzled mother bubbling beneath my professorial exterior, I calmly excused myself, then frantically rushed my six-year-old to the E.R. with a head injury and concussion. He recovered faster than me.
An academic career is lauded as ideal for mothers, partly due to its perceived flexibility. If it's so good, then why do women outnumber men in graduate school but make up 26% of full professors and just 23% of college presidents, a number that hasn't changed in 10 years?
The gate to academic leadership is tenure, awarded (or not) after 7 years. The ideal candidate produces early, consistently, works double-time, with no downtime. Success is based on "publish or perish." And at the moment of reckoning, it's either "up or out." Get tenure, you stay; don't, you're jobless.
How does this work for mothers? The average age at Ph.D. completion is 34. A woman typically earns tenure after 40, near the end of her natural childbearing clock.
This rigid time-line sets a collision course where tenure and biological clocks tick in unison. A U.C. Berkeley study shows that having a baby in the first five years of an academic career slashes women's chances of tenure but boosts fathers' tenure rates.
Perhaps this is why studies show women leaving academia in far greater numbers than men. In separate reports, the American Association of University Professors and the federal government expressed concern over the lack of female leadership in academia. Among their concerns was the lack of female voices in research agendas and the shortage of women academics as role models.
A few innovations notwithstanding, there is little evidence that universities are doing enough to address the issue. Not surprising when only 14% of doctoral-granting universities are headed by women.
Why the shortage of female advancement and leadership in academics? Five years ago, with three young children, an advancing career, and my energy sapped, I was living proof of the dilemma. Wanting to know more about the experience of academic mothers, I began an interview study of academic women with toddlers. Most were on the tenure track (or tenured). Several moved off the tenure track in anticipation of becoming mothers. Common themes emerged quickly.
The intense demands of early parenthood clashed with the most demanding moments in their careers. Pregnancy, nursing, and raising children each require tremendous emotional investment and energy.
Women described living in "survival mode," and "treading water," doing barely enough to hold on so they'd still be "in the game" when their children were older. Maternity leaves were pressured by what was NOT being achieved.
Women modified goals, curtailed conference travel. This could be disastrous for careers, since after declining talk opportunities, "the invitations stop coming altogether."
No one sang the blues, nor blamed the workplace or children. They simply felt the two arenas were in perpetual, unresolvable conflict. "I don't think there is a balance. One is always striving to topple the other."
Having children brought unanticipated changes. Motherhood made them better scholars and teachers, more human, gave new angles on their subjects. Still, feeling successful in either domain remained elusive: "Something has to give...I wasn't aware that I'd be making such compromises with my career, my children, and my relationship by trying to do it all." The near unanimous conclusion for these academic mothers was, "Balancing work and children is a myth."
Yet, desires to thrive as scholars abounded. Raising children takes years, not the six weeks of maternity or one-semester parental leave. So, women envisioned achievements over longer periods. A science professor framed it: "Some things will take the lead at different times... It's just going to have to come in these waves, where it'll go from one focus to the other in a more long-term scale."
And the highly-touted flexibility? Double-edged. Women appreciated being able to adjust schedules to be with children, "But doing that means I work every single night and weekends." Another noted: "I work a million hours..."
Something has to change in order to make academia more appealing to talented women. But what?
Academic leaders must start to envision a tenure path that recognizes the realities of mothers' lives. This may mean recognizing gradual career starts and transforming the seven-year fast track tenure structure to include part-time tenure-eligible options and longer tenure timelines (10-12 years) without penalizing childcare interruptions. Of course structural changes would also need cultural changes, so that academic communities acknowledge that slower does not equal less worthy.And, as in every work realm, on-site affordable childcare is a must.
An academic environment where women can pursue motherhood and successful careers offers benefits for everyone: more tenured women; more women as college presidents and academic leaders; more role models for future generations. These transformations can only be better for mothers, for children, for students and the institutions themselves, and for fathers and men as well.
July 22, 2010; 6:20 AM ET |
Women in leadership
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